A HISTORY OF VENICE by John Julius Norwich


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Published in Britain in two volumes, this massive but modest tome claims only to be ""a straightforward record of the main political events of Venetian history, for the general, non-academic reader""--and that's all it is. Aside from the occasional appreciation of a major building, you won't find cultural textures here. Also, as Norwich himself admits, you won't find--with a few exceptions--personalities. What you will find, however, is chattily readable prose, a dry sense of humor (""Eunuchs, as everybody knows, are dangerous people to cross""), and the author's engagingly qualified admiration for the Venetians--their unflagging self-interest, their state-imposed discipline, their secular, non-intellectual activism, their flexible ability to live more or less under a constitution for centuries. Here, then, is Venice from 5th-century beginnings as a refuge from barbarians to a loose, autonomous association of island communities under the Byzantine Empire circa 800 (her ""very submission"" assured independence and greatness); from a trade-centered Republic, fighting wars and pirates, to the builders (circa 1150) of an overseas empire (with a boost from the plundering Fourth Crusade) and a world-power circa 1300; from a Machiavellian peak of war/trade/diplomacy to, after Vasco da Gama (""Overnight, Venice had become a backwater""), a steady decline--with external entanglements and internal ""sickness."" Here, too, are the 100-some doges, the ups and downs of the elitist oligarchy and the Council of Ten; the problems with Popes (Julius II is perhaps the strongest character in the book); the role of the condottieri; the pros and cons re Venice as a police state. (Norwich, dearly something of an elitist himself, argues the relative freedoms and huge benefits of Venice's system.) And here, too, is conspiracy after conspiracy, war after war, a few floods, the Black Death, and the acquisition of a patron saint (""History records no more shameless example of body-snatching""). Most Venice-lovers, of course, will miss the esthetic cross-references. Serious history lovers will look vainly for deep, broad analysis. But, for those who share Norwich's more narrow enthusiasms: a lucid, companionable pageant.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1982
ISBN: 0679721975
Publisher: Knopf